Sunday 26 May 2019

Standard punctuation

The smallholding year is characterised by frequent and regular events that govern what you ought to be doing and when, day by day, month by month, season by season. Being seasonally driven, many tasks are time dependent with a small window of opportunity to get them done. I like this regularity and routinisation of life. It engenders a feeling of ontological security. 
One of these annual punctuation marks is the making of elderflower cordial. Elderflowers are so abundant and freely available it’s a shame not to take advantage of nature’s offering. Now is the season for elderflower around here. It’s true it uses a relatively large amount of rightly frowned upon sugar, but the taste is so distinctive and delectable it’s worth doing. But a little goes a long way (it is consumed diluted) and, in any case, I find that recipes often recommend more sugar than is really necessary. (Remember: Silver Spoon, British - and for us locally - grown sugar beet; Tate and Lyle imported cane sugar).

Elderflower cordial is easy to make. But it still requires some effort. You have to notice when the elder bushes have come into flower and that the flowers are at the correct state of readiness. You have to go out and pick them in sufficient quantity, and then you have to go through the splashy process of production. It’s not the same as dropping a bottle in a shopping trolley. If you are thinking about it but don’t get round to making it, it’s like an unfinished sentence that can’t be completed until another yearly cycle has gone by. 

I use a River Cottage recipe which seems to work well for me. I don’t add citric acid as the lemons and orange already contain quite a lot already. I've not had any problems.

  • Makes about 2 litres
  • About 25 elderflower heads
  • Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice (about 150ml in total)
  • 1kg sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp citric acid (optional)

  • Inspect the elderflower heads carefully and remove any insects. Place the flower heads in a large bowl together with the orange and lemon zest.
  • Bring 1.5 litres water to the boil and pour over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.
  • Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon and orange juice and the citric acid (if using).
  • Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.

Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilised bottles. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks. Or use milk cartons and freeze.

Thursday 23 May 2019

A cow parsley wedding

We got married in the month of May sometime last century. It was a small, modest event although the ceremony did take place in a church (for sacramental reasons rather than social ostentation). My brother-in-law was tasked by my mother to pick large quantities of cow parsley which were then in full flower. He thought it a bit odd to pick this hedgerow weed but did what he was asked to do. 

My mother died a year ago. Arguably, her finest achievement, along with my father, was to bring up ten well-mannered children. She had, perhaps understandably in the circumstances, a somewhat unfulfilled artistic eye. All the window sills the length of the church on both sides were decorated with the lacey blooms of white cow parsley. It was a very impressive sight. So simple; so impactful.

As Paul Evans in The Guardian Country Diary column once called it: now "is the cow parsley moment, its blooms making foam waves against hawthorn hedges along the road". I always look forward to this annual decoration.

Because I am deficient in technical ability as well as hardwear, I've taken the
liberty of using this fine photograph of roadside cow parsley by Pete Birch.

Friday 3 May 2019

Not just a smell

When our children were young and the nearby fields had muck spread on them, or when we passed some farm land in the car after muck spreading, there would be a chorus of “ewwww!” from them. Hands would smother noses and mouths accompanied by agonised writhing on the back seat. I would of course take a deep breath through my nose and exclaim “marvellous” or something similar. This would prompt another chorus of “ewwww!”. 

I’m reminded of this because muck spreading has been taking place near us in the last few days. Although I have to admit the odour is not in my top ten favourite smells, at the same time it has also never troubled me much. For a start it is only temporary. Also, the smell is not that noxious to the senses. The manure comes from herbivores and does not, in me at least, evoke the same level of disgust as the far more intense smell of carnivore droppings of, for example, the dog or cat. Nor, dare I say, of  the omnivorous outputs of humans.

One other reason why I think the smell of the muck spreader feels to me relatively benign is that I smell it in its wider context. For many years as a keen gardener I’ve valued manure and compost, and gone to some lengths producing it or digging it in to condition the soil. As an old Channel 4 TV series had it, its All Muck and Magic. For me, it’s about being aware of soil condition and enrichment, whether carried out by a home gardener or a farmer. It’s not just a smell.